Saturday, November 13, 2004

A "Head" Start on the Next Election

If there was ever was an argument for media literacy, this would be it. In an article due for publication in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science, a team of professors discuss a study that shows the relationship between fear of death and political preferences. [“The Effects of Mortality Salience on Evaluations of Charismatic, Task-Oriented, and Relationship-Oriented Leaders”; you can get a pdf version of the article by clicking here]. Participants in the study were asked to contemplate details of their death (inducing what psychologists call “Mortality Salience,” or MS), and then later asked to respond to statements by three types of leaders: "charismatic," "task-oriented," and "relationship oriented." Note: one needn’t think of "charismatic" as someone with great qualities. As a press release announcing the study observed, charismatic means a leader who emphasizes “greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.”

As the professors predicted, people tend to prefer charismatic leaders when reminded of death. But when people are not reminded, charismatics get a very small percentage of the vote. What to do? The authors recommend that people be taught to “vote with their ‘heads’ rather than their ‘hearts’.” There’s reason for hope; past research shows that death thoughts are “attenuated by instructions to think rationally.” The authors conclude, “asking participants to think rationally about which candidate to vote for should eliminate the preference for charismatic leaders induced by MS.” But alas -- this cheerful observation only came after MS of another kind. The authors observe that, “the events of September 11, 2001 have left a pervasive sense of MS throughout America, and the results of this study suggest this may have consequential effects on electoral outcomes.”

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